by Francesco Gilioli with Franck Iovene in Rome
When Italian master Canaletto was painting his panoramas of the floating city in the 18th century, the “squeri”, as they are known, were ten a penny. Now only four of the small shipyards remain.
All of them have been at a near or complete standstill since a blanket ban on sailing gondolas was imposed during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Venice without gondolas is dark and meaningless,” said Roberto Dei Rossi, one of the few remaining traditional carpenters who build the long black boats.
The 58-year-old crafts between four and five gondolas a year by hand, each one taking some 400 hours to make.
“Every time I put a new one into the water, it’s like witnessing a birth. It’s my creation,” he told AFP.
– Fit for a king –
The boats are just over 10 metres (32 feet) long, 1.38 metres wide and weigh 600 kilogrammes (1,320 pounds).
They are made up of 280 pieces of wood from eight different species of tree — oak, larch, walnut, cherry, basswood, cedar, mahogany, and fir.
They are bought almost exclusively by gondoliers, who pay between 30,000 euros ($33,000) and 50,000 euros depending on the finish.
Each is made to measure and adapted to the weight of its new owner.
“We also have had a few enthusiasts who have placed orders with us, in the United States, Germany and Japan,” said Dei Rossi.
They were once considered a present fit for a king: some, along with their gondoliers, were offered by Venice’s Doge to France’s Louis XIV for the “royal flotilla” that sailed on the Palace of Versailles’ Grand Canal.
The bulk of the fleet now glides along the canals of Venice, punted by some 400 gondoliers.
Would-be newcomers have to bid for a limited number of navigation licences granted by the city hall.
These are glum times for gondoliers though: the pandemic has put a temporary end to romantic tours by water.
The sector had already suffered during exceptional high tides at the end of last year, which put off tourists and damaged boats.
They will sail again once tourists are allowed to return to Italy from June 3, covering their noses and mouths with masks — a far cry from the city’s flamboyant carnival costumes.
– ‘Axe masters’ –
Italy’s government imposed a national lockdown in early March. Images of pristine waters in Venice after marine traffic was halted went viral around the world.
But the long shutdown was bad news for the shipyards, which not only make but also repair and maintain gondolas.
It has been particularly hard for the Tramontin shipyard, the oldest workshop still active in Venice.
Bordering the Ognissanti Canal, it was taken over by two young sisters in 2018 after the death of their father Roberto Tramontin, heir to a family business founded by his great-grandfather in 1884.
“With dad no longer around, the main thing was missing,” said Elena Tramontin, 33, who decided along with her younger sister Elisabetta to do what they could to keep the company alive.
“We had to reinvent ourselves,” she told AFP.
Despite having no experience and no previous plans to enter the gondola-building business, they took the plunge, relying heavily on the help of gondola carpentry experts known as the “maestri d’ascia”, or “axe masters”.
“My sister is in charge of public relations, the cultural side of the business, which is important, and I paint and do some small repairs on the boats,” Elisabetta Tramontin said.
The art graduate, 30, says that despite the obstacles — be they high tides or viruses — they are determined to honour their father’s memory and transform “Tramontin and sons” into “Tramontin and daughters”.
“You don’t get rich with this job, you have to have passion. But it does bring a lot of satisfaction,” she said.